The German burgher class [Bürgertum] comprised wealthy merchants, often engaged in wholesale or long-distance trade. More numerous were master artisans or handicraftsmen, who were married, workshop-owning employers of journeymen and apprentice workers. The artisan trades, whose numbers in the bigger cities might exceed one hundred, were organized in craft-specific guilds – for example, carpenters or shoemakers. These guilds wielded powers, granted by ruling princes or urban governments, of regulating the number of masters in a given town – for the artisan trades were mostly urban – so as to enable them all to earn a living deemed socially appropriate through the service of a market monopolistically closed to “foreign” artisans, that is, from other towns. Likewise the guilds imposed standards of production (including allowable technology), set prices, and regulated the pay in cash and room and board that masters owed their unmarried workers (though many journeymen lived independently in rented quarters).
Like merchants, master guildsmen voted in town government, and might serve as mayors or aldermen. Important, too, among the burghers, though not so numerous, were the educated professionals: lawyers and judges, medical doctors, town officials, learned schoolmasters and, especially in Protestant lands, the married, university-trained, often scholarly or literarily engaged clergy. The rise of absolutism swelled the ranks of bourgeois state servants, many of them graduates of newly founded or expanded universities specializing in the “administrative science” [Kameralwissenschaft] that boomed in eighteenth-century Germany. It offered training in protectionism-oriented, bullion-hoarding “mercantilist” economics. This doctrine favored state activism in founding monopolistic joint ventures of government and private entrepreneurs (the latter sometimes including so-called “court Jews” [Hofjuden]) to develop military provisioning and manufacture armaments and uniforms.
By the late eighteenth century, the growth of the state and the private market economy had raised to prominence both a “bourgeoisie of property” [Besitzbürgertum] and a “bourgeoisie of education” [Bildungsbürgertum]. They lived more in symbiosis than antagonism with the absolutist state and nobility, both of which depended in business, legal, and also cultural affairs on bourgeois talent and often paid well for it. But “feudal privilege” was increasingly a red flag in burgher eyes, especially when it entailed aristocratic monopolies on ownership of large landed properties (seigneurial lordships) and on high positions in public-sector employment, including the diplomatic and army officer corps.
The military defeats and other humiliations that German territorial rulers and their noble servitors suffered at French hands after 1792, and especially after 1799 in Napoleon’s day, encouraged middle-class critics to raise their voices. Drawing inspiration from the philosophies of liberalism and nationalism, they began to demand equality before the law, the “career open to talent,” constitutional government, an end to princely press censorship, intellectual and academic freedom, and the establishment of a united Germany, if only through a federation of existing states.